The Boxhead Children

Like a lot of guys their age, Joe Ferguson, Braden King, and Michael Krassner moved to Chicago to start a band. In the spring of 1995, the aspiring novelist, the film-school grad, and the songwriter, who’d met in college in LA, rented a raw loft space on a desolate stretch of South Michigan with the intention of building themselves a live-in practice space. But once the drywall was hung, the band failed to materialize. “All of a sudden we had so much going on that we felt guilty playing music,” says Ferguson.

What was going on was that the loft, which they’d dubbed Truckstop, was quickly becoming a key locus of musical activity in Chicago: it now houses a recording studio, an album mastering facility, and a record label, and serves as a home base for a network of talented musicians who’ve made a specialty of bridging the gaps between rock, pop, country, and experimental music.

The story of Truckstop helps illuminate the mysterious way musical communities emerge and develop. It arguably starts in 1994, when King landed a job doing PR, radio, and other odd jobs at Atavistic Records. When label owner Kurt Kellison–whose wife, Paula Froehle, is also a filmmaker–found out about the space King and his roommates were building out, he suggested that they outfit it with some recording gear that he owned. Atavistic would be able to offer its acts an inexpensive recording facility, and the residents would have 24-hour access to a studio for their own purposes–including a documentary feature King had been working on about an Alaskan fishing village. “I think it all revolves around the studio,” says Krassner. “We have the luxury of the space and unlimited recording time.”

Once the trio had given up on being a band, Krassner responded to a flyer soliciting a guitarist, and the group he joined turned out to be the terrific country-art-rock combo Pinetop Seven. Though Krassner spent only a year in the lineup, he developed close friendships with guitarist Charles Kim, drummer Gerald Dowd, and upright bassist Ryan Hembrey, who are now all integral players in the Truckstop circle.

Probably the most galvanizing development, though, was the completion of King’s documentary, Dutch Harbor: Where the Sea Breaks Its Back, which premiered locally in early 1997. Krassner, who’d scored music for one of King’s school projects under the name Boxhead Ensemble, was to produce the music, and he’d recently become enchanted by Gastr del Sol’s experimental opus Upgrade & Afterlife. “It was a revelation, like, that’s what music should be,” he says. So he cold called David Grubbs and Jim O’Rourke, who agreed to work with him, Kim, and Ferguson in a Chicago version of the Boxhead Ensemble. Krassner also used Truckstop’s Atavistic connection to recruit Ken Vandermark and Eleventh Dream Day members Rick Rizzo and Doug McCombs. The musicians came together for a total of five hours of improvising, cued by film footage and some loops that Krassner and Kim had prepared in advance. The resulting music complemented the film’s bleak visual beauty, but it also stood on its own, and Atavistic agreed to release it on CD.

When the film toured the U.S. and Europe, various Boxhead lineups went with it and improvised new accompaniment. The roster shifted continuously, including at one time or another Hembrey, Pinetop Seven front man Darren Richard, Mick Turner and Jim White of the Dirty Three, cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, ex-Souled American guitarist Scott Tuma, violinist Julie Pomerleau, and multi-instrumentalist Jim Becker, and Atavistic ended up releasing two additional CDs of live material: The Last Place to Go and the limited edition EP Niagara Falls. Krassner also backed singer Edith Frost on some of her tours, and through her got to know drummer Glenn Kotche and pedal-steel whiz Steve Dorocke.

The Boxhead Ensemble “was kind of a double-edged sword,” Krassner says. “It led to a lot of opportunities, playing and traveling, but people started to assume that the group was designed only for that project.” He says the current lineup, with himself, Hembrey, Kotche, Lonberg-Holm, and violinist Jessica Billey (Mick Turner’s wife and partner in the band Bonnevil), is more stable than previous ones and is currently working on music for a new experimental film.

Meanwhile, with manufacturing and distribution help from Atavistic, King launched the Truckstop label, whose early releases included albums by psycho rocker Bobby Conn, masked garage fiends the Goblins, and subversive New Orleans crooner Glyn Styler as well as Pinetop Seven’s critically acclaimed debut. In April 1999, Nebraska singer-songwriter Simon Joyner–who met Krassner at one of Frost’s shows–recorded an album for the label backed by Krassner, Kotche, Kim, Hembrey, Billey, Lonberg-Holm, and Vandermark, among others. A third Pinetop Seven LP is due in the fall, and a new album by the Lofty Pillars–what Krassner calls the usual suspects when they’re executing his literate rock-pop songs–came out this week. “It’s kind of like the old days,” says Krassner. “Fred’s almost like the house arranger, Joe and I do all of the engineering, I produce the records, and we’ve got a bunch of house musicians.”

Ferguson, Krassner, and King have all since moved out of the loft, and King went to New York last year to concentrate on his film career. (Ferguson now runs the label.) But the space continues to serve as a hub for musical activity. For a while Nerves drummer Elliot Dicks ran a second recording studio there, sharing the live room with Truckstop, and Mick Turner had an office one door down; sometime Pinetop Seven drummer Dave Pavkovic, whose fusion project Toe debuted on Truckstop last year, and bassist Griffin Rodriguez of the experimental rock trio Bablicon, who plays on a forthcoming Toe record, are responsible for much of the musical foot traffic these days. And the network keeps expanding: country rocker Chris Mills’s current band includes Dowd, Hembrey, and Dorocke, and Hembrey and Dorocke now play in the folky minimalist group Central Falls with Town and Country guitarist Ben Vida and his brother, Adam. Truckstop has also developed ties to the Indiana indie Secretly Canadian, which has sent acts like Songs:Ohia to work with Krassner and company.

On Sunday at Schubas, a stripped-down version of the Lofty Pillars–Krassner, Billey, drummer Jason Adasiewicz (who played vibes with Pinetop Seven when they toured behind their last album), and Lonberg-Holm on bass–will celebrate the release of the new album, When We Were Lost, and then return to the stage to back Simon Joyner. “One of the benefits of a collective like this,” says Krassner, “is that if you get in a bind there’s always someone that can step up and help.”

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Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Clockwise from top left: Joyner, Adasiewicz, Dorocke, Billey, Kim, Kotche, Krassner, Ferguson, Lonberg-Holm, Hembrey, Dowd photo by Jim Newberry.